Authorities say tougher distancing measures necessary to limit spread following recent triple-digit jumps in cases.
South Korea will tighten physical distancing rules for Seoul and its surrounding areas from Thursday, the government saying its anti-coronavirus efforts are “facing a crisis” as it works to contain increases in new cases in and around the capital.
The tougher measures – including limits on public gatherings of 100 or more people as well as the numbers able to attend religious services and sporting events – will come into force on Thursday, Yonhap news agency reported.
Under the stiffer rules, only two-thirds of students will be allowed in school classrooms, while clubs and karaoke bars will be required to ensure there is more distance between patrons.
South Korea has used aggressive tracing, testing and isolation to control the virus, but has seen spikes in cases centred around workplaces, small gatherings and church services in recent weeks.
More than 200 new cases have been confirmed every day over the past four days, and the daily count has been in triple digits for 10 days.
“Our anti-coronavirus efforts are facing a crisis, and the situation is particularly serious in the Seoul metropolitan area,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a meeting of government officials on the outbreak.
“The heightened curbs would cause greater inconvenience in our daily lives … but we all know from our experiences that there would be an even bigger crisis if we don’t act now.”
Chung noted an increase in R-naught, which represents the number of other people each patient is likely to infect and is currently at 1.12, according to Yonhap. About half of South Korea’s population of 52 million lives in and around the capital.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 230 new cases as of Monday midnight, the highest in more than two months. Of the new cases, 202 were locally transmitted and 28 imported. Nearly 68 percent of the domestic infections came from the greater Seoul area, according to the KDCA.
Yonhap reported that new cases were being discovered at multiple locations, including an art club, a department store, a family gathering, a religious facility and a cafe. Authorities have warned previously that the transmission route for such clusters can be difficult to trace.
KDCA director Jeong Eun-kyeong warned on Monday that the daily tally could go as high as 400 within coming weeks, asking citizens to stick with strict hygiene rules and minimise year-end celebrations.
The foreign ministry extended the special travel advisory that was first issued in March by another month, urging all Koreans to cancel all non-essential overseas trips.
South Korea has now reported a cumulative total of 28,998 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 494 deaths.